Maurice Levine & Yip Harburg

Maurice Levine & Yip Harburg



                         Series Announces First Spin-Off



By Peter Haas


What if there were no lyrics to our American popular songs? The answer came from E.Y. (“Yip”) Harburg, the wordsmith for such classics as “Over the Rainbow” and “If I Only Had a Brain,” from The Wizard Of Oz, and “If I’m Not Near the Girl I Love, I Love the Girl I’m Near,” from Finian’s Rainbow.

“Let’s suppose,” he said, “God had had only the tune of ‘Let There Be Light,’ and stood on the brink of eternity and sang only ‘Dad da da da.’ We would still be in the dark.”

Harburg was speaking on the stage of the 92nd Street Y as the initial guest – in 1970, 44 years ago  ̶  in its popular series, still running to packed houses: Lyrics and Lyricists.

The programs, created and originally hosted by Broadway conductor Maurice Levine, brought many noted Broadway and Hollywood lyricists to 92Y, talking about their work while Broadway and recording stars, and often the writers themselves, sang their songs. Guests, early in the series, included Alan Jay Lerner, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Johnny Mercer, Sheldon Harnick, Dorothy Fields and Stephen Sondheim. Sondheim, seated at a small table onstage, offered the audience a mini-tutorial on the craft of creating lyrics.

Deborah Grace Winer

Deborah Grace Winer

The shows evolved to five different presentations each winter/spring season. At the start, they were produced and hosted by Maurice; later producers included Barry Levitt, cabaret/theater pianist and conductor, and Kristin Lancino, who had come to 92Y from the management side of Carnegie Hall. Says Deborah Grace Winer, journalist, author and today L&L’s Artistic Director: “Kristin began to feel that the series could be much stronger if the Y brought in outside guests to serve as curators. They’d be individuals who could bring not only scholarship regarding particular songwriters, but who also had theatrical knowledge, who knew what makes an entertaining show. That was the ‘aha!’ moment for the series, and absolutely turned it around.”

Kristin brought in guest artistic directors. In the beginning, they included Rob Fisher and Ted Sperling, both prominent Broadway musical directors and conductors, and Robert Kimball, musicologist and historian. “At one point,” says Deborah, “the series wanted to prepare a show about Dorothy Fields.” Deborah, an established journalist, playwright and author, had written a book about Fields, and, she recalls, “Bob Kimball recommended me to be artistic director for that program. I guess I did okay: soon I was asked by 92Y to come back as guest artistic director for other programs in the series.” When Kristin left the Y to join Schirmer, 92Y invited Deborah to become Artistic Director for the entire series, responsible for selecting the guest artistic directors for each individual program. This roster now includes Fisher, Sperling, Kimball, conductor/arranger David Loud, and Deborah, all of whom rotate in regularly over a two-year period. The group now also includes other L&L favorites such as Rex Reed and Billy Stritch, as well as guest directors – including, just this season, Kathleen Marshall, Broadway director/choreographer, who created a show built around MGM musicals.

“We like to think of L&L as a family,” says Deborah. “That includes not only our guest artistic directors, but also our audience and our subscribers. In fact, many of our audience regulars grew up coming to the series with their parents.”

The MGM show is one example of a new creative thrust for L&L – of necessity. With the exception of still-robust Sheldon Harnick, who has served many L&L shows as guest creative director and host, the series’ early lyricists “have gone,” says Deborah, smiling, “to that great ASCAP meeting in the sky.” Today L&L’s programs are built around a wide variety of themes.

Last year’s series, for example, featured a program of songs inspired by the style of W.S. Gilbert, with Harnick presiding as writer and host. Another show, titled “Give Me Fever: The Many Voices of Peggy Lee,” presented songs she wrote or made famous; Billy Stritch was the program’s artistic director, as well as on stage at the piano. Other productions featured the music of Vernon Duke and of Jerome Kern, both shows with lyrics by a variety of wordsmiths. The 2013 season ended with “Brush Up Your Shakespeare: The Bard and The Broadway Musical,” spotlighting the ties between Stratford-on-Avon and Shubert Alley, with songs from shows ranging from “Kiss Me, Kate” to “West Side Story.”

The Shakespeare show, in fact, is about to have an additional life. 92Y has just announced that the production, which Deborah co-wrote with the evening’s artistic director, Mark Lamos, is being transformed into a theatrical revue, and will be presented this summer at the Westport Playhouse, where Mark is Artistic Director. Says Deborah: “This will be L&L’s first spin-off!”

“Like Being Shot Out of a Cannon”

Each new show involves a rigorous week of preparation. “Our performers begin with us on a Monday, with vocal rehearsals,” says Deborah. “They work on stage from Tuesday afternoon; our great tech staff comes in on Wednesday; the band joins us usually on Friday, and dress rehearsal is on Saturday afternoon, with any fixes we need put into place at that time. That’s when we start holding our breath! Any ‘final final’ fixes take place during Saturday dinner – and on Saturday night, to quote Cole Porter, ‘it’s another op’ning of another show!’ It’s fun, but it’s hair-raising! It’s like being shot out of a cannon!”

Erin Dilly, Jason Graae, Christine Andreas, John Treacy Egan, Klea Blackhurst (Photo:Richard Termine)

Erin Dilly, Jason Graae, Christine Andreas, John Treacy Egan, Klea Blackhurst (Photo:Richard Termine)

The 2014 season began in January, with five fresh productions. That month brought “Going Hollywood: MGM Musicals,” created exclusively for the series by Kathleen  Marshall. It was followed in late February by “Sweepin’ the Clouds Away: Boom Bust and High Spirits,” hosted by artistic director Robert Kimball and featuring Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks, Christine Andreas, Jason Graae, Erin Dilly, Klea Blackhurst and John Treacy Egan. Early April just brought “Getting to Know You,” the songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, with Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization, as artistic director and host. Coming at the beginning of May: “Ziegfeld Girl: The Many Faces of Fanny Brice,” hosted by Ted Sperling. The season concludes over the weekend of May 31-June 2 with “Panning for Gold: Great Songs from Flop Shows,” with David Zippel as artistic director and host. (For details on dates and times, visit 92Y’s web site,

These shows, and those planned for future seasons, herald a new focus and new identity for the series. Its spotlight, originally on lyrics, has now been widened to include the music and its composers as well as the songs’ history and contexts, repositioning the series to embrace the American Songbook in all its creativity and fun.

Says Deborah: “We want to make L&L a place where the best music and theater talent working today in New York can come together, with the possibility of creating new shows that have never existed before, each one with its own special beating heart. Together we believe we can attract the most wonderful performers, the most wonderful musicians. Together we can create this high-end play-pen! ”

“Lyrics & Lyricists has done more than just about anything else I know to renew our knowledge and affection for the great songs of the American experience,” says Robert Kimball. Deborah, reflecting her own enthusiasm, adds a comment by guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, who has played for many of the L&L shows. Says Deborah: “Bucky once remarked, ‘If it’s not fun, we should all go home.’ That’s how we feel at Lyrics & Lyricists, especially about our ideas for the future!”